Take Care

Posted on 29 November 2015

Recently, I’ve been up in the mountains. The Pacific Northwest weather has turned; it has started raining, and a chill has settled in the air. People have cranked up their heaters, are lingering inside more and more, and the dark drifts in early. Total insulation, isolation, however, is impossible, though we often do not feel it, hiding away as we often do.

Glacier, Heliotrope Ridge

I’ve been raring for adventures. Almost every weekend spent at home with chores seems like a weekend lost. Ben found a hike, Heliotrope Ridge, that sounded like an especial, beautiful adventure: fording several water to come up to a glacier at Mount Baker. So we made our way, hoping across several rivers and gradually gaining altitude, until we hit our last obstacle. A not huge but not small torrent rushed off glaciers above and flew downhill, over drop offs, rocks, and blocking our way. You see, I have short legs: hopping across was not an option. I peeled off my shoes and socks and plunged my feet into the water in the hopes of wading across before realizing that was futile. The water instantly sapped away my feeling, the rocks were slippery, the water was pushy, and there was nothing to hold on to. Falling in the frigid river and soaking myself was a dangerous prospect; I looked up as distant foggy masses slowly drifted in. Still barefooted, with my shoes in Ben’s care across the river, I scrambled higher and higher up the bank. Loose, rocky soil ran away from my fingertips as I tried to cling on, all of my muscles clenched. I scouted higher and higher. Ben, with some difficulty, re-forded the river and joined me in my attempts to scout out a way across. There was no way for us, so we settled for ascending a climbers’ trail, high enough so we could see the glacier over the river. We settled down in our down jackets to eat a snack of cheese and crackers.

Leaning over the river, poking my foot in and realizing the water’s strength and withdrawing, I felt a buzzing, raw fright. I had reached a natural limit. My situation was far from dangerous, but, pushing, I could have made it so. My body realized that, and whatever fear chemicals there are pulsed mildly under my skin, and I heeded them.

Climbers' Path to Mt. Baker

When I was in Peru, trekking to Lares with friends, using a hand-drawn map as our guide, I felt a similar buzz, a knowledge that the situation could easily be beyond my powers. Jim and I stood on a cliff, supposedly overlooking a town through which the road we need to reach passed through. We could not see this town, though – everything below was completely obscured by fog. Darkness would be descending, and we had a couple hours yet to walk. We could not see our way down. We walked along the cliff, Jim scouting ahead of me, climbing down potential routes that quickly turned out pointless. We leaped across a waterfall. Finally, we found the usual footpath down a steep hill: slippery but fairly safe. I still felt the alarm pulsing through me. We were at the mercy of the weather and the light. Already earlier that day, we crossed the first pass, the way ahead obscured by falling snow and drifting, heavy clouds. The ice-topped mountains surrounding us were awe-inspiring, and ominous. We made it to Lares that night, tired, chilly, and wet, but proud of our hike, and the two passes we’d climbed and descended through in one day.

Pachacutec Pass, Peru

This trepidation is not fear alone: it is paired with a healthy awe, with admiration, appreciation. Ben and I drove out to the gorgeous Methow Valley a few weekends ago, going through Washington Pass. Our way home in particular was snowy. Despite plows prowling back and forth, snow was accumulating rapidly, making the road white and slick. The trees bent under the weight of heavy, wet flakes. Several times we pulled over to the side and ran around gleefully. Snow! Mountain! Beauty! It was gorgeous, and it was indifferent to us. The snow fell, making the landscape pretty, and ever more treacherous. That’s when I feel the blood pulsing through my veins.

Washington Pass

We humans never seem to remember it, but the earth can push us aside. We like to hide ourselves indoors, furthering the illusion of protection – a protection that could, really could, be shattered. We also spew and tear around, plundering, polluting, not really thinking beyond ourselves. Our work may last for a while, but mess around with the earth, and it can really, really slap us down.

Step outside and remember: the world is more powerful than we ever will be. Best to take care.

Kto Znayet, Who Knows

Posted on 12 October 2015

I used to walk the streets of Saint Petersburg, propelling myself forward at a strident pace. Sometimes, passerby would stop me and ask me for directions. I told them I didn’t know where I was, where I was going.

Man, Pigeons, Library, Moscow

I’ve seen people travel to Russia with an image in their mind. A romantic image: a dark but gorgeous, majestic place, literary geniuses winding their way through the lamp lit streets, symphony notes hovering in the air, poetry in the wind. A harsh image: never ending Soviet apartment blocks, grey sky, grey streets, grey faces, a hush all around, a terror gripping you, reaching out from every pulled-aside curtain in the window. A chaotic image: mafia men roaming the streets, lawlessness abound, money exchanges on the street, bright glittery shops full of bootlegs and do you even want to know? I had an image of Russia too: political dissidents, rebels and revolutionaries, ere hidden interests now blossoming, a glamorous and edgy grit.

None of these images are true.

All of these images contain a shard of truth. Russia encompasses them, scrambles them up, and adds a dash of everything more. If you’re coming to Russia looking for straight answers, any answers, you won’t find them.

The stereotypes do contain some truths, though, in the form of old women hunched and hobbling down the street, swinging their bags at anyone who dares get in their way. It’s best just to step aside for your own safety.

The small kitchen was overwhelmingly brown. I sat at a small table, hunched over my tvorog. It was too much to stomach; I set my fork down over the scrapings scattered around the plate. My new hosts hovered over me. One took up my fork, gathered up the last crumbs, not quite a forkful, and stuck them in my mouth. “We can’t waste any food; we’re blokadnitsi.” That night in my room, it took me a few moments to fully realize: they survived the Siege of Leningrad, these two. As children, they saw the city starve to death, with hardly people left to haul bodies away through the snow.

Palace Square Saint Petersburg
Anichkov Bridge

The sun is coming out and the parks are glistening – snow or spring dew; doesn’t matter. The canals maybe even sparkle. Take a walk, you can pass: birches, elegant cathedrals, drunks in the street with piss on their pants, a crowded McDonald’s, a courtyard with hippie art, tiny shops, expensive designer displays, old women prostrate hands out, a Hummer roaring by, trash maybe burning from cigarette butts, the Soviet insignia, a blini stand, someone yelling at you for being in their way, some of the most beautiful bridges. This is one city in the world’s largest country.

We huddled around the campfire, in intervals covering our faces as smoke engulfed us. The guitar was on a lap and we sang songs in Russian and English. We lingered too late for proper sleep before getting up to the chilly morning, slightly misty, which the sun soon dispersed. We laughed under the trees, swinging our pickaxes in the marsh. It was Siberia, but everything was warm, even when it was dark again and we were bundled up in our sleeping bags. Talk about heartfelt.

I came home from volunteering at a human rights organization. What did you do, my host inquired. Well, I compiled English sources on the Gulag for an online museum. Back to me, hunched over laundry, “oh, that’s good. You know, my father was sent to the Gulag.” What? “We don’t know why. He came back from the war, from the front, with children’s books in German, because I was studying German, you see? And then they took him away, Stalin took him, and we never saw him again.”

I walked along Nevsky Prospekt and different old women were on the street, resolutely holding up framed photos captioned, “Stalin, our hero.”

Fontanka Embankment
Novodevichy Monastary

The museums, goddamn. Tsarinas’ dresses and carriages and bejeweled icons and gold shit everywhere, parading the imperial past. Look at this wealth! It makes me sick.

I do not enjoy these museums.

We crowd into one small room in one small apartment. A woman clutches a violin; someone else, a guitar. The audience is all on the floor, butts pretty much on top of one another. We draw our knees inward and wrap our arms around our legs, sucking in. But the energy spreads out: we laugh, and applaud, and the songs last for hours. I even sing.

Velikii Novgorod Church

A bulky doorman beckons us inside and closes the heavy door behind us. He looks through our purses and takes cameras, cell phones – anything that can obviously record. We’re assessed. I stand nervously by my friend, somewhat of a regular, who is the only reason I could get in. The bouncer opens another door, and we’re allowed on the dance floor. We’re in Saint Petersburg’s gay club. It’s still early and it’s largely empty. I hang out for a bit before deciding to make it home before midnight; I have a quiz the next morning. The guard gives me back my phone and opens the heavy door. I step into the darkness, and I run home.

Our bus had caught fire. We sat on the sidewalk of a small town near the Estonian border as our now-shirtless driver banged around the back of the bus. We befriended a street puppy. We wandered in the radius of a few blocks, finding the town’s World War II monument. The sun shone heavily.

Pskov Sunset

Every snippet I grasp of their previous life, their Soviet life, I cling to. There isn’t much, but it’s not the scarcity that makes the stories all the more fascinating. I’ve grown away from building pedestals, but still this one remains, a tower greater than all the angular Soviet monuments I’ve stood underneath, craning my neck. I tend the flowers there, at the bottom. Over the years, tendrils have crept down with stories: hiking through a forcibly relocated village and leaving food behind for the one old lady who remained, walking out of the American embassy, forbidden books clutched under a jacket. I want to dig my nails in, forcibly hoist myself up.

Some day too soon, I’ll have gathered all the tendrils I’ll ever gather, and it won’t be enough. But, I suspect some truths were unspeakable, and the lies were unpalatable. So there was a gaping silence, one I filled with nothing, and they held their stories to themself.

What does anyone really, truly understand? What can anyone really, truly comprehend? Those who lived the past are dead, but the past lives on in others, the unknowing.

I don’t know.

The Crowded Wild

Posted on 21 September 2015

The photos may convey an untamed wilderness, but that’s not really the case – at least in these spots. On the Fourth of July, hoards of people descended upon Yellowstone’s lodges, its sprawling parking lots, its shops. With our car packed full to the windows with the last items of our prolonged cross-country move, we navigated our way through the park, winding around RVs, trying to see what we could, while we were there.

I can’t begrudge the other people, who were doing something similar to what we were – though I will project negative energies at those who strolled off the walkway in places clearly labeled Sensitive Ground, Stay on the Trail. A national park is a funny thing. Wilderness preserved and displayed in this way doesn’t seem so wild. But I know it’s there – it’s just off the road. With more time and no moving duties to attend to, I’ll return.

And crowds or no, the geysers and mud pots were pretty damn cool.

Tetons from YellowstoneOld FaithfulRiver and SteamDead TreesColored EarthSpitting GeyserTree ReflectionTrees and PoolGrand Prismatic SpringBuffaloYellowstone Grand Canyon

The Shock of What’s Real

Posted on 7 September 2015

Grand TetonsJackson Lake

The magnificent Grand Tetons faced us on the road and I faced them right back, unwilling to look away.

As we crossed into the national park, a moose balefully stared at the crowds huddling along the banks of the river, in whose cold water the moose was sheltered. I looked around balefully too, shying away from the hot dog toting crowds. I wanted to get out and camp in the mountains’ shadow, not sit under the eaves of a park convenience store. Feeling mildly claustrophobic, we drove past the already-full tent-only campsite, aiming for another at the far north of the park.

A more serene scene greeted us: a spot on the edge of the campground, bordered by a lake and hedged in by flowers. We set up camp and then I wanted to swim.

What’s as refreshing as jumping into frigid water? I may be crazy, but I haven’t found an adequate alternative. From the Finnish sauna to the Russian banya to Lake Baikal to glacier lake swims here in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve been shocked and refreshed by plunges into bone cold water. I, who don’t particularly like swimming, am lured into the icy-under-your-skin embrace of these cool bodies. I go to them: they’re indifferent to me.

After some partner convincing, we walked down to the beach, bathing suits in hand. We changed, hiding behind a rack of canoes though we were the only ones on the shore. Then I haltingly charged into the water, as it was, so close to the chaos that is what we’ve made, but really so removed. We were the only ones in sight.

The clenching freeze abated and I was able to jollily flop around in the water for a handful of minutes. And then I emerged, skin red and prickling, feeling great. I wasn’t cold anymore.

Lizard Creek FlowersLizard Creek CampsiteJackson Lake in the Morning

Disappear into Earth

Posted on 31 August 2015

When I travel, I revel in the crazy encounters, in the soft souls that hold me for a time.

And sometimes, I revel in their absence.

Welcome to WyomingWyoming Storm Coming

Wyoming. It’s vast. The sky pools overhead and the hills undulate on and on and on, spotted with scrub, never quite hiding how far the landscape can stretch. For all the millions of people in this country, it still has its empty places.

I peered out of the car windows, looking for prairie dogs.

We stopped in a small town, population less than a hundred. A visitor information office sat sentry, housing maps for the nearby national forest. We were given our directions, and water from the house out back, from an enthusiastic and helpful lady. I pet the horses fenced in next door.

An hour later, we were bouncing along the dirt forest roads. I aggressively ruled out spots that portended neighbors. Winding our way high onto a hill, we came across a spot that, though not entirely flat, contained an old fire circle and was as isolated as we could get. We took it.

The evening was spent setting up camp, stoking the fire, eating our camping food, hiding from a quick burst of rain in the tent, watching birds and chipmunks, and generally being alone and slightly wild.

Making FireTall CampfireFeet by the Fire

Poems, Mountains

Posted on 16 August 2015

We exited Rocky Mountain National Park, snow splotches fading in our eyes, winding down the road toward Wyoming.

Rocky Mountain TreesRocky Mountain National ParkRocky Mountain Pond

I had a red eye flight out of Seattle. Equipped with my not-at-all stuffed to the gills backpack (truly, it wasn’t), I sat on the bus, off to the airport, chatting animatedly with the bus driver who asked where I was going. I told him about my upcoming road trip, my home-in-the-making, and he told me about his job, how long he’d been a bus driver, previous travels, and his desire to get out somewhere soon, over the holiday weekend maybe, Canada maybe. Do it, I said. Just go.

Never has going been a bad idea.

I trod into the Denver airport at around 2am but I wasn’t counting. I scouted the somewhat familiar airport – I hadn’t been to Denver proper but the airport, yes, several times – and found a hidey hole in a quiet area. I dragged some chairs nearer to the wall and lay on the floor. My next flight was at 9:30am to Pierre. I was cold on the floor and it was bright. I rolled around until I deemed it time for breakfast, and off for a bagel and the largest coffee was I.

Armed with caffeine and nourishment, I headed to my gate. Almost to a new place! Almost to my boyfriend, who I hadn’t seen in months! Numbers slipped my mind so early, and I paused in front of a departures screen to remind myself of the gate number. Cancelled.

Disgruntled, I headed to the gate anyhow. The weather was fine so I wasn’t sure what could be happening. But, yes, this rubbish airline had cancelled our flight. It was Friday morning before the Fourth of July weekend and the next flight wasn’t until Sunday. Demoralized would-be passengers sat around me. How to get to their families to celebrate? It wasn’t sure. I called some rental car companies. Nothing available. So my boyfriend switched his driving route, looping instead toward Denver to meet me. In the meantime, I had until the evening.

For a while I luxuriated in the hotel bed, recuperating from the airport floor. Then I showered. And then I knew that, if I was in Denver, I shouldn’t waste the rest of my time in a hotel room. I randomly picked a microbrewery, called an Uber, and set off with my book tucked underarm. As per usual, I chatted with the driver.

I entered Great Divide Brewing’s Tap Room and for just a moment, I felt overwhelmed by the crowd clustered around the bar to order. I stepped away, nearer to the bathrooms, and two women pointed at the book under my arm. “What is it? I love seeing someone carrying around a book.” I started my explanation about the book, by an Estonian-Finnish author, about the book’s examination of the Soviet invasion of Estonia, and its lasting repercussions. Often, but not always, my long-winded explanations are met with bemused disinterest. This time, I received more questions in turn. I followed them to the bar.

And then, I followed them to one of their homes, after a flood of invitation, persuasion. I had hours until my boyfriend got to Denver, after all. I texted him their address, where he would pick me up.

How does this happen? We sat on the porch, looking up poetry on our phones. We recited in English, Spanish, and Russian. That never this heavy ball of earth will drift away beneath our feet. Lines in foreign languages were met with hands on the heart.

My tired-of-driving-all-day boyfriend gathered an ecstatic me. Kisses on the cheek, goodbye. We went back to the hotel to ready ourselves for our road trip that would begin tomorrow. But I was already traveling.

Rocky Mountain ElkRocky Mountain Flowers and SnowBen Picknicking

We wound up, up into the mountains, into the patches of snow, into the blue sky. We sidestepped crowds of people, sitting at the most secluded picnic table. I spun around with my camera – mountains mountains elk mountains. The high altitude air was clear. We were together again, and we were here. A lightness. We commented on the super strong cyclists pushing their way up into the heights as we drove down and out.

We exited the park. We exited Colorado.

Leaving Colorado

A Sharpening

Posted on 27 July 2015

“You seem more confident now. You don’t care about what others think.” Lingering words. One of my two beloved German professors earnestly leaned toward me in the crowded and noisy bar, a show likely happening in the background. Amid the clamor, my brain questioned whether my ears really heard what they so wanted to. But my ears were right. He was right. I had just studied abroad in two different countries, I had traveled through central Europe by myself, couchsurfing for the first time. I felt different: a little larger, a little sharper.

Young, and navigating my way through my early college years with the constant self-questioning, “am I cool enough? Do I look good enough?” I know I’m an odd duck, but odd can be cool, so am I, am I? Staring at my bangs in the mirror, hand on the scissors. They must be perfect or I’ll look stupid. An hour passes. I did my bangs alright, but I don’t feel any different, any better.

Recently, two weeks camping in Siberia. Bucket showers at most. Mud, no make-up, no shaving. Still: on goes the bathing suit and into the freezing waters I go, screaming, laughing. And if I want, in excitement or contentment or both, I raise my arms above my head.

In Lake Baikal

Last month, for the local wacky solstice festival, a friend and I, inspired, grew out and, gasp, dyed our armpit hair. I had not an ounce of negative self-consciousness, nay, I even felt a bold pride. If someone were to say something I would have laughed, uncaring, because now I do what I want, what’s comfortable for me. Because, I know I’m cool and that cool is a nebulous shifting piece of crap anyway, but whatever, I’m cool if I feel I am.

Young, and in my dorm room because my friends are busy and I don’t want to go to the cafeteria by myself. How mortifying! Instead, I scrape peanut butter and jelly onto some bread and turn back into my dim little room cave.

Recently, checking into a hostel in Klaipėda. I’m alone and I want to go biking along the Curonian Spit. A girl checks in behind me. I turn to her and start to chat right away. We wander around town together. The next morning, we cycle.

This month, I have time to kill alone in Denver after a cancelled flight. I could sit around in my hotel room, but that wouldn’t do. So I grab an Uber to a microbrewery downtown, to see what’s going on, I read there were food trucks there. Immediately after stepping inside, two women ask about the book I have tucked under my arm. I join their group out on the patio and eventually we head back to one of their houses, where we end up reciting poetry in English, Russian, and Spanish. My boyfriend, arriving in town after rerouting his journey to meet me, picks me up at their place. I’m glowing.

Throwing yourself out there, tumbling around—it builds an additional layer of skin, a barrier for sloughing the silly fears off, a coating of eh I don’t care about the superficial things, but about the meaningful connections, the adventure.

And travel, especially solo travel, especially wing it and it’ll be fine travel, is throwing yourself out there, to be sure. Do it enough and you’ll become tough in all the right places. Maybe not completely free from social anxiety or body image blues, but you can get much, much better.

My professor, six years ago, was right. Now, he is six years righter.

Pssst! Don’t forget to vote for me, Leah, to be the next Women in Travel Summit Global Ambassador! Voting closes tomorrow.

Vote! WITS Global Ambassador

Posted on 22 July 2015

My dear blog readers! Today it was announced that I’m a finalist in the contest to be the Women in Travel Summit Global Ambassador. The winner is selected by vote, so of course, if you enjoy this blog and think I would be a good ambassador, I would very much appreciate your support!

Visit this page, check out my statement and photos, then VOTE for yours truly (Leah) if you’re inclined!

And hey, hope to see you at WITS!

WITS PhotoWhere do you think the above contest photo was taken? Hint: I’ve written a post on this location!



A Dreamland

Posted on 15 June 2015

Cactus Flower, PeruCordillera Blanca DonkeyPath to Laguna ShallapCordillera Blance HorsesLaguna ShallapBehind Laguna Shallap

I am hungry for new scenery, for vastness. Huaraz and its surroundings provide. The Cordillera Blanca towering above, around. The green and rocky path. I sink in. I look around as if it’s a dreamland. Earth is full of dreamlands. Everyone can find a dreamland, different, widely different, from whence they come. My eyes just drink.

The Flood

Posted on 31 May 2015

Under a tree I sat, brow inevitably furrowed. My eyes felt red. I looked around at the greenery. It was not too cold, not too hot. Large flowers, and an avocado tree, were not far. I was in Kenya. But I was miserable, I seethed, I felt trapped in this place, in my skin. I picked at a piece of grass then threw it as far as I could.

Sexual harassment had, long ago, gotten very old for me. I would say I was used to it—the waiting to cross the street while men leaned out of a truck and hollered, the walking home from class briskly and hearing whistles despite my headphones, the shielding my face as men laughed, sticking cell phones in front of me to take my photo. And worse, the stories from others, whispered, whose invasion ran more deeply, more physically. The trepidation. But, of course, you never get used to it. You fill up and then you overflow.

I was overflowing.

I was in Kenya, and the only safe place was in my tiny room, locked. Walking with my male colleagues was better, but that didn’t end the catcalls. Walking alone was worse. I sat under the tree with the phone card I had just purchased from the village shop a ten-minute walk down the road. I was followed halfway home by a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer.

And people tell me I walk fast.

On the bus, a man moaned about my hair blowing in the wind and masturbated while no one said a thing. In crowds, men grabbed me, trying to draw me to them. Anywhere, men shouted at me. At work discussions, men would ask questions about me, about my age, to my male colleagues since women supposedly can’t answer for themselves. At work, I was sexually harassed by my boss, who would make lewd comments, who would grab my hand to shake it as is custom, but then would pull me closer to give me a slurpy kiss on the cheek. On the institute’s campus, I would act politely toward the men who worked with us, but then would be bombarded with creepy phone messages.

I was in Kenya, and this is when I started to feel as if I was becoming a bad person.

There was nothing I could do to protect myself, but projecting a defensive aura of rage helped. Scowling at all men helped. Walking as fast as I could, sunglasses on, keeping myself closed, never open, helped. I shielded myself from all the bad as best I could, but that meant I was also blocking the good.

Emanating waves of negative energy sucked me hollow. Good people like other people, right? They’re compassionate, right? They’re open, right? And I walked around hating half of all people as the best defense I had. Never, ever smile.

Of course, this story doesn’t end. I would run at home and trucks would follow me, would honk. I would step out of the door at my homestay in Peru, clothed in black, sunglasses on, head down, and the kisses and the deliciosas and the shouts of you fucking cunt I’m going to rape you would rain down. I would walk, holding hands with my boyfriend, and men would shout, shout, shout. And laugh.

I live and I walk and I look at things and I feel a man approach from behind and stop and repeat “hi hi hi hi” until I turn and tell him to go away, I clearly don’t want to talk. I sit outside on a conference call for work, notebook in my lap, and a man places himself in front of me, “hello beautiful,” standing standing standing there until I shoo him, still on the phone, still trying to work. I leave an event, I see a man leer at me and I know, I grab the pepper spray in my purse, enter my car and lock the door, and he peers down at me, having followed me there.

I hate them all.

I feel guilty. Maybe good people don’t hate. But I hate them all.

How to deflect? I try to live and I am assaulted. I absorb.

I overflow.

Hotel Hall in Kenya

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